The Spurs returned to action on Thursday on a scrimmage against the Bucks. They lost to a clearly superior team, but that was neither unexpected nor noteworthy. This severely shorthanded San Antonio squad is not in Orlando to win games, but to continue to develop its young players.
In that department there was a noteworthy event: acting head coach Becky Hammon decided to start Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Lonnie Walker IV. The trio of young guards had not shared the court at all during the regular season but suddenly got minutes on the restart.
Now, it’s possible this was Hammon’s prerogative and when someone else takes control of the team the trio will be broken apart, but if this is a preview of what we can expect the Spurs to look for the next eight regular season games and potentially going forward, it’s important to understands what it means.
The perimeter defense might finally be less that disastrous
The Spurs lost two great perimeter defenders in Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard and never replaced them with similar players. Instead, two liabilities who were small for their positions in Bryn Forbes and DeMar DeRozan took their place. The result was an extremely porous perimeter defense that put a lot of pressure on an aging LaMarcus Aldridge to plug all the leaks, to predictably poor results. This new lineup could fix that.
“Us three together, the difference maker about us is we love to play defense,” said Walker IV after the game. “We’re ready to get up and under people and play the right way.”
Hammon echoed the sentiment and it’s easy to understand where the excitement is coming from. Murray and White have proved to be both disruptive off the ball and tenacious in one-on-one situations, and they both can guard bigger players thanks to their length. Walker has yet to demonstrate that he’s as good on defense as the other two, but he certainly has the tools to immediately make an impact, even if he has yet to master the intricacies of the craft. All three can switch seamlessly too, at least in theory, and they all play with a physicality and effort that is encouraging to see. There’s a lot of potential there.
In the game against Milwaukee there were good moments and bad ones, the latter often coming in the pick and roll. It’s fine. It will take time for everything to click, but it’s still encouraging to see the Spurs at least try to get better on defense on the perimeter, since the deficiencies there have been a huge issue for the past two seasons.
It will take time, but the Spurs might have found a potential solution to a huge problem.
DeRozan doesn’t fit with that trio, and that’s a problem.
The struggles on offense — 22 turnovers and 35 percent from beyond the arc in just 22 attempts — probably got the most attention on Thursday, but should not be long term concerns. We know that because two teams that feature former assistant coaches to Gregg Popovich have tried similar approaches and have been successful. The Bucks and the 76ers have surrounded their heavy-usage, limited-range stars with athletic defenders who can create in a pinch, which would be hard to justify in pick and roll-heavy offenses that need to prioritize shooting but isn’t as big an issue in motion offenses. Having several people who can initiate is a plus in most cases, even if a team has a Giannis Antetokounmpo, a Ben Simmons or a DeMar DeRozan.
There is, however, a significant difference between the Sixers’ and the Bucks’ stars and the Spurs’: DeMar DeRozan is only 6’7, and that is a killer on defense.
Someone has to guard a big man when a team starts four initiators with perimeter skills. That’s not an issue for Giannis or Simmons, since they are both big and excellent on their own end. DeRozan is not only built like a shooting guard but also averse to physicality on defense. Whenever the Spurs tried these small lineups for small stretches with him guarding bigs during the regular season, they suffered. We saw the same happen against the Bucks in a few possessions in which he had to guard Brook Lopez before Hammon had to switch the assignment.
It’s not DeRozan’s fault that he has been asked to first move up to small forward and now to at least spend some time at power forward. His value is not on defense and as a shooting guard, he can be hidden. But to think that he will suddenly develop a taste for physical play would be foolish, and if one of the young guys has to guard bigs the value we expect them to have to the perimeter defense would be lessened.
Figuring out how to keep their three best perimeter defenders on the court as much as possible while also giving DeRozan his usual minutes will be a huge challenge for the Spurs.
It’s all going to be a mess for now, but at least we have hope
If the Spurs stick to this lineup featuring their three promising guards, the question about whether DeRozan should be in the team’s future plans will need an urgent answer. As good as the trio could potentially be on defense, there will be a learning period, as illustrated by the many breakdowns against the Bucks. The reluctance to shoot from outside from all three of Murray, White and Walker IV will be infuriating. The young guys playing won’t solve anything in the short term. In fact, it will almost surely do the opposite.
But we now finally have hope. The Spurs will be bad in Orlando, but it seems they will at least be bad in exciting ways. There was no upside to the Murray-Forbes-DeRozan perimeter trio, so it was hard to appreciate its occasional competence. The new one might be a mess at times, but it will at least allow us to project some growth in the future.
That alone makes the experiment worthwhile.